Origen and divine dereliction

As I mentioned a while ago, I am ruminating on Andrew Louth’s The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition. At present, I am working through the chapter on Origen of Alexandria (184/5-253/4). Origen is the first Christian in the book, and his adaptation of Platonist mystical theory and allegorical readings of the Bible have had a lasting impact on Christian spirituality and theology, right up to this day. One of the things that Louth makes clear is how Origen’s Christian belief impacted his mystical ideas and transformed the Platonic heritage.

Of interest to my most recent theme on this blog is the fact that Origen anticipates St John of the Cross in the famous idea of a mystic’s perceived abandonment by God:

The Bride then beholds the Bridegroom; and he, as soon as she has seen him, goes away. He does this frequently throughout the Song; and that is something nobody can understand who has not suffered it himself. God is my witness that I have often perceived the Bridegroom drawing near me and being most intensely present with me; then suddenly he has withdrawn and I could not find him, though I sought to do so. I long therefore for him to come again, and sometimes he does so. Then when he has appeared and I lay hold of him, he slips away once more. And when he has so slipped away my search for him begins anew. So does he act with me repeatedly, until in truth I hold him and go up, ‘leaning on my Nephew’s arm’. (Homily on the Song of Songs I. 7: GCS, 39, quoted by Louth, p. 69)

Louth has a chapter on St John of the Cross and the Patristic heritage, so I’ll be interested to see how he picks this up. Nonetheless, at the roots of the Christian mystical tradition, this idea of feeling that God at times suddenly leaves the seeker alone is found, embedded in both Origen’s personal experience and his reading of the Bible.

Part of what this illustrates, besides the germ of the idea of the Dark Night of the Soul, is the uncontainability of the Christian God. He comes and goes as He pleases. Those Christians who have been blessed with ‘mystical’ encounters with Him know through such experiences as the above that it was not any trick on their part but His very grace that made Him come in that way — this is the teaching and experience of St Bernard, St Thomas Aquinas, St Seraphim of Sarov, Archimandrite Zacharias.

Thomas Merton warns, indeed, against seeking these mystical encounters with God (see The Inner Experience). We are to engage in the practices of contemplation; we are to seek God. But whether we have any particular kinds of mystical experience is solely the gift of God’s grace, given by Him as He wills, according to His divine economy and our need. To seek these experiences is what Merton calls iluminism, a mystical heresy that puts more emphasis on the gifts than their giver. Whether mystic or charismatic, the modern Christian should beware!

Nevertheless, it strikes me that somehow these teachers all promise some sense of the presence God, whether the Uncreated Light or the still, small voice, as well as the dereliction of his absence.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going”

St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938)

Apparently, the title of this post is a Winston Churchill quotation; so says the Internet, anyway.

At present, things are going swimmingly for me. There is light, brightness, joy. You know, that sort of thing. At times like this, it is easy to put on a CD of hymns and sing along or simply listen in joy. It is easy to thank God for the victory. To see the promises of Scripture leap off the page and into my life.

But there has been darkness in the past.

There will be darkness in the future.

Times when prayer is dry. When God seems distant — not just ”Tis only the brightness of light hideth Thee’ distant, but ‘Are you even there?’ distant. Church (what a bore!). Other Christians? Ugh. Spiritual reading? Morning Prayer? No. Really, let’s just watch Star Trek and go to bed.

Historic, orthodox Christianity has plumbed the depths of such times, whether we think of the writings of St John of the Cross or the life of St Teresa of Calcutta.

Perseverance is the key. We read of St Silouan (1866-1938; born Simeon) about his own darkness:

Month after month went by and the torturing assaults of the devils never slackened. His spirits began to fail, he was losing heart, while despair and the fear of perdition gained ground. More and more often was he possessed by the horror of hopelessness. Anyone who has gone through something of the kind knows that no mere human courage or power can hold out in this spiritual battle. Brother Simeon foundered and reached the final stages of desperation. Sitting in his cell before vespers, he thought, ‘God will not hear me!’ He felt utterly forsaken, his soul plunged in the darkness of despondency. Sick at heart, he remained in this black hell for about an hour.

That same day, during vespers in the Church of the Holy Prophet Elijah …, to the right of the Royal Doors, by the ikon of the Saviour, he beheld the living Christ.

In a manner passing all understanding the Lord appeared to the young novice whose whole being was filled with the fire of the grace of the Holy Spirit — that fire which the Lord brought down to earth with His coming.

The vision drained Simeon of all his strength, and the Lord vanished. (Archimandrite Sophrony, St Silouan the Athonite, pp. 25-6)

Few of us are blessed with anything approaching the beatific vision that St Silouan had at Vespers that evening. Indeed, many of us will find that we go to Vespers, or say our prayers, or turn up on Sunday after Sunday, almost unwillingly, and with no apparent change.

St John of the Cross says that this dark night exists as a means to help us grow in grace, in holiness, and in faith. The apparent absence of God is there to strengthen our weak souls. It is like a mother weaning her child. If we persevere in faith, we will come to richer, deeper, profounder love of God and our fellow humans.

This is real Christianity. This is not quick fix, Jesus-will-make-you-happy-rich-healthy religion. This is not pop psychology poorly applied by the underqualified. This is perseverance, seen in saints such as Silouan, John of the Cross, Mother Teresa. It involves pain, sorrow, grief.

But in the end, real joy, abiding peace, as we behold Our Saviour face to face in His glory.

Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross

Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)
Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)

Our love for God is, at some level, tied up with what the Greeks call eros, as blogged previously. Eros is desire, and it drives us and pulls us and raises us up beyond the darkness and the mire of the world to ascend towards God — to kallisto, the most beautiful one; summum bonum, the highest good.

As guide to what this sort of erotikos love for God looks like, St John of the Cross is one of the more beautiful choices. He paints a picture that so many of us can relate to in these stanzas from his ‘Coplas about the soul which suffers with impatience to see God’:

When thinking to relieve my pain
I in the sacraments behold You
It brings me greater grief again
That to myself I cannot fold You.
And that I cannot see you plain
Augments my sorrow, so that I
Am dying that I do not die.

If in the hope I should delight,
Oh Lord, of seeing you appear,
The thought that I might lose Your sight
Doubles my sorrow and my far.
Living as I do in such fright,
And yearning as I yearn, poor I
Must die because I do not die.

Is not this longing, desirous aspect of divine eros common to us all? We reach for the invisible God, but He seems to us illusory. We want to know Him, but He cannot be touched save in what? Bread? Wine?

Elsewhere, St John describes the relationship between God and the soul in terms inspired by Song of Songs, as of the Bride seeking the Bridegroom and lamenting her inability to find Him, and then they meet, and go up a mountain where He can reveal to her His secrets.

The soul is the Bride, and elsewhere, in the most famous of St John’s poems, ‘The Dark Night of the Soul‘, she steals away from home at night when everyone is sleeping. In secrecy she meets with and is joined to the Lover Who suspends her senses.

It has been years since I read St John of the Cross’ commentary on the poem, but this theme of being wounded by love recurs in his poetry. God reaches into the heart and wounds it for the purposes of cleansing and renewing and healing. We live in an impatient age that sees God in a therapeutic light. But our keen desire for God at times meets with His love in what may be termed ‘tough love’.

Yet we desire Him all the more. Elder Porphyrios refers to this phenomenon as well, and I think it is best thought of as unsatisfied satisfaction. We are satisfied with God when we finally find Him. But we want more. This is because of something I read of St Gregory of Nyssa (The Life of Moses, I think) — we are finite, God is infinite. The more of Him we find, the more will remain to be found. The more perfect we become, the more perfection lies ahead of us.

Today, as I think on our love for God, I want to emphasise — from the many themes of St John’s many poems — the theme of perseverance. The great mystics and holy men & women and spiritual theologians of the church often went through great perseverance to move forward in their lives. Let us persevere in the face of the Unseen God, knowing that He will be faithful and make Himself known to us in the ways that are best for us and that we can handle.

This, then, is a major part of our love for God: to persevere.

Poems of St John of the Cross and making time for silence

I got back from a week up in northern Scotland with my parents this past Friday, and our first stop was the Granite City of Aberdeen where, after seeing my Grandpa’s birthplace and two fantastic Gothic churches, we slipped into a bookshop (as we are wont to do). To my delight and surprise, I found Poems of St John of the Cross, translated by Roy Campbell.

poems of st john of the cross

As I have mentioned here before (twice, in fact), I lost this book, a gift from my friend Emily, along with The Way of a Pilgrim, trans. Helen Bacovcin, back in 2004 on the OC Transpo when the books fell out of my pocket. My brother gave me Bacovcin’s Pilgrim for this past birthday, and now I have also recovered St John of the Cross — in even the same edition! Quite chuffed with this purchase (a mere £2), I started reading that night at our hotel.

Zurbarán_St._John_of_the_CrossHere you will find that St John of the Cross employs ‘the analogical’ method of talking about God and our relationship to Him — that is, St John is unashamed to follow in the footsteps of St Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here) in discussing Christ as the bridegroom of the human soul as bride. It is an analogy for a kind of communion and relationship to which nothing in the human sphere really compares. This private poetry is one of my cited locations where it’s okay for Jesus to be your boyfriend.

The first poem is the famous ‘Dark Night of the Soul‘, upon which St John wrote a commentary that is one of the great classics of the Christian tradition (read it online or find it in print!). Many of the poems deal with searching for the Lover or with one of the classic tropes of lyric-elegiac poetry — the pain of love.

One title stands out to me, Englished as, ‘Verses Written After an Ecstasy of High Exaltation’.* How many of us could say, ‘I have had an ecstasy of high exaltation?’ We may have the eros, the desire, for God, but we rarely reshape our lives. My ‘ascetic revival’ of a few years ago lasted about a week. Old patterns slip back in.

Who has time to sit alone and pray to God, to clear the mind, to do nothing in God’s presence?

We, of course, need to make the time. Cultivate stillness and silence. Probably very few of us will have ecstasies of high exaltation — ecstasy, as James Houston notes in The Transforming Power of Prayer, is a gift from God not doled out lightly. We cannot attain it by any technique or through any skill. But we can all attain the same stillness that inspired St John of the Cross to write his beautiful poems, driven by the desire to meet with the Most Holy Trinity. And that is worth doing.

So, when we’re moving along with church attendance, prayer, and scripture reading — as recommended here — shall we then add stillness in God’s presence as a way to focus our lives and hearts of Jesus?

*’Coplas del mismo hechas sobre un éxtasis de alta contemplación’ in the original spanish.

Saint of the Week: St. John of the Cross

Image of the Crucifixion by St. John of the Cross

My first encounter with St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) was musical, in Thunder Bay at a Steve Bell concert where Steve performed ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ based on St. John’s poem of the same name.  Later, I was to encounter this mystic saint through the similarly folksy music of John Michael Talbot.  I found the image of the dark night and the discovery of the beloved quite irresistible.

I next encountered him in the written translation of his poetry in a slim volume of his poems given me by my friend Emily.  Although I was to lose this book and The Way of a Pilgrim in a misguided use of cargo pockets on my trousers to carry books, its brief time in my life was a blessing.  His vivid and almost (dare one say it?) erotic imagery of the relationship between the soul and God was powerful for me.

I think this Spanish mystic would have approved of my initial encounters with him — as well as the association of his poems with The Way of a Pilgrim.  You see, St. John was a mystic and a monk, indeed, but he was also a singer.  I remember hunting down information on him on the web after these early meetings, and I learned that his spiritual friend, St. Teresa of Avila, described John of the Cross as spending time walking in the hills and singing songs to God.

And why not?  Why not sing songs to one’s lover?

St. John of the Cross demonstrated his great love for the Almighty through the commitment of his life to monasticism.  This was the sixteenth century, and anyone who has looked at, say, the Fifth Lateran Council or the events that started in Germany in 1517, knows that the Church in many ways was in need of reform.  St. John and St. Teresa were both Carmelites, and both were involved in the reforming of their religious order.

St. John’s commitment to reform of the Carmelites was so great that he was considered with suspicion by other Carmelites monks and once found himself imprisoned in a rival monastery.  But have no fear — he made a daring escape!  Let no one tell you that the life of a mystic is boring and full naught but long nights sitting around in silence seeking the divine embrace!

Besides the poem ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, St. John of the Cross also wrote a commentary on it, appropriately titled The Dark Night of the Soul.  I read E. Allison Peers’ translation of this well-nigh central text to post-mediaeval western mysticism whilst in Cyprus (where I was informed by a friend that all you needed from St. John was a quotation and then you’d be cool).  I never moved to its sequel, The Dark Night of the Spirit, for that was for contemplatives who had moved appropriately through the lessons of the Dark Night.

The concept of the Dark Night is something any spiritually healthy person needs to know.  We may have effulgent love for God that pours itself out in poetry and beauty and paintings and dance and essays and ecstasies and social action* and who knows what else.  But we will at times find ourselves unsatisfied.  We will be dark, dry, barren.  Those things we once found sweet — prayer, the Scriptures, the Eucharist — are bitter and empty.

This is there for us to grow.  God doesn’t want us to be good, strong Christians.  He wants us to be better, stronger Christians, pursuing the way of perfection through worship and imitatio Christi all of our days.  As a mother weans a child of her milk so the child can move to solid food, so God removes some of the pleasantness of the spiritual life for a spell so that we can grow into even greater and clearer manifestations of his unending love for us.

I have by no means done anything resembling justice to this mystic, poet, spiritual reformer.  If I have somehow whetted your appetite, find his poems, find Peers’ translation of the Dark Night, and read the relevant chapter of Edith M. Humphrey’s Ecstasy and Intimacy.  You won’t be disappointed through an acquaintance with St. John.

Also — pray for a while today.  St. John would recommend it, for how can we say we love God when we spend no time with him?

*St. John of the Cross was cited by Thomas Merton as saying that contemplation was more important than action, and that one action that has been preceded by much contemplation is worth more than ten with none.  Or something like that — see The Inner Experience.

Tomorrow Night: St. Teresa of Avila & St. John of the Cross

First: Apologies for not even posting a saint last week.  I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), so my writing energies have been directed elsewhere.

Anyway, tomorrow night, we return to the mystics with the 16th-century Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.  Someone once said to me, when I was limping my way through The Dark Night of the Soul, that all you really need to do is be able to quote St. John of the Cross to look cool.  This is probably true, but our goal is not to look cool; our goal is to progress in virtue and to move closer to the vision of God.

Last week we read Luther’s Preface to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  We are justified by faith, and that faith, when living and active, will naturally produce good works in accordance with righteousness.  The mystics will help us keep our energies directed towards God, help us keep our faith living and active, keep it real.  They will also show us one type of the good works, the internal works of the spirit — not to neglect the external, however.

The readings will draw from St. Teresa’s Interior Castle as well as the St. John’s poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.”